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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Surprise, Surprise, Jonah Lehrer Returns

Fabricator and liar Jonah Lehrer has landed on his feet.

November 11, 2014

To the surprise of no one, disgraced journalist and serial bullshitter Jonah Lehrer is back[1].

Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House, press-released the news of the forthcoming, The Digital Mind: How We Think and Behave Differently on Screens to be co-written by Lehrer and UCLA Anderson School of Management, professor and behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi.

At the time of his defenestration from The New Yorker and other reputable publications, I observed in a blog post on this very site, “I’m pleased to see that Jonah Lehrer has been caught and discredited, that his own magazine believed in the truth enough to investigate further, even as I'm certain he will return to prominence as a journalist in the not-too-distant future.”

I wasn’t alone. Roxane Gay writing in Salon about Lehrer and the myth of the young male genius declared in July 2012, “There are those who will say Monday was the day of Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace, but he is a product of a system that encouraged and enabled his behavior. This is about sowing and reaping. That same system will help Lehrer find redemption. At some point in the future, not too long from now, there will be a book deal.”

So, knock me over with a feather.

Portfolio publisher Adrian Zackheim said, “Jonah Lehrer is one of the most gifted nonfiction writers of his generation. No responsible publisher could entirely overlook his past mistakes, but the prospect of working with him was also fantastically appealing.”

Professor Benartzi also acknowledged that Lehrer had made “serious mistakes” and that he is “truly gifted.”

While I do not think that Jonah Lehrer must serve some kind of lifetime ban from publishing -- say, stalking Manhattan in a hair shirt, displaying his welted skin as a warning to other transgressors -- I was hoping that his return wouldn’t be quite so simple and that it just might include an honest accounting of his past sins.

The party line appears to be that Lehrer made “mistakes.” Personally, I’m a big believer in the power of learning from one’s mistakes. In fact, in my courses I teach the writing process as an ongoing series of failures, mistakes that we learn from and seek to overcome or remedy.

We make mistakes because we do not know better prior to making them. Even when we should know better, we may still make errors in judgment and call them mistakes. A child can be told a stove is hot, but need to experience it for himself to be sure.

Or as another example, it was entirely foreseeable that during my first semester freshman year, getting wasted on rum drinks the evening before my 8am Econ 101 exam was a bad idea, but only after seeing how bad an idea it truly was did I realize the extent of my mistake.

But Lehrer did not make mistakes. He engaged in an ethical and moral breach of the core values of his profession. Prior to his inventing a quote from Bob Dylan, Lehrer was well-informed of the prohibition against fabricating facts in journalism, and yet he did it anyway. When caught in these fabrications by Michael Moynihan, Lehrer engaged in a comically bad, transparently stupid attempt at a cover-up.

Someone who had made an actual mistake wouldn’t have tried to throw Moynihan off the scent. People who make mistakes acknowledge and even appreciate it when someone else diagnoses that mistake.

Lehrer’s was not an error in judgment, like a doctor making the wrong diagnosis based off of incomplete or contradictory information. He proved himself unfit for the profession, like a doctor deliberately treating his patient incorrectly, amputating a leg when the gallbladder needed removing. (And then lying about it.)

While “mistakes” is the wrong word to describe Lehrer’s actions, so too is “gifted” to describe the man himself.

The proper word is not “gifted,” but “privileged.”

In her Salon article from 2012, Roxane Gay demonstrates how Lehrer has benefited from the “young genius” narrative, and shows how Lehrer has benefited consistently from this categorization.

When he was caught recycling his own material, it was viewed as a mere bobble, an aberration, because Lehrer so perfectly fit the established image of the genius – young, white, male, and a little nerdy, but not in an anti-social way.

As Gay says of the 2012 incidents, “This is also about entitlement. Only entitlement can explain why someone would choose to lie in plain sight. For whatever pressures Lehrer faced, there is no ignoring that he plagiarized himself and fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan (Bob Dylan of all people!) because he could.”

Perhaps Prof. Benartzi will play the role of chaperone in the relationship, making sure the young genius doesn’t stray over the line. I’m trying to resist judgment, but I can’t imagine what kind of process leads a respected academic to embrace a working relationship with a known fabricator. That Benzarti choose to excuse Lehrer’s past actions as “mistakes” doesn’t suggest a particularly clear-eyed view of things on his part.

To me, these events suggest that Jonah Lehrer just might not have deserved the “young genius” label, that this has been a figment, though obviously one that’s very hard to dispel. It’s easy to be a genius when you allow yourself to play by a different set of rules. Was Lance Armstrong the greatest cyclist of his generation or the product of the most sophisticated doping program in the history of mankind?

I have another name for Lehrer and it isn’t kind, but I think it’s more accurate than "gifted."



I got the news about Lehrer via Twitter.


[1] In case anyone has forgotten his sins, they were Cardinal, including making stuff up and then taking steps to cover his tracks after the fact.



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